The past few years have seen higher numbers of female presidential candidates and female politicians in general. Only seven women were major presidential candidates before 2019. By contrast, six women — the highest number of female presidential candidates in one election in American history — are currently running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. At 102 congresswomen, 35% of whom are newly elected, the current House of Representatives boasts the highest number of women elected to Congress in American history.
In what is now widely regarded as a historic run, a female Senator announced her candidacy for President.
She was a United States Senator from a Northeastern state, facing little opposition when first elected, and then later reelected. The Senator was a noted civil rights advocate, particularly pertaining to women’s rights, one of her landmark accomplishments, and supported healthcare reform. The Senator rose to notability and influence on foreign policy and national security, although was criticized by the right-wing for perceived weakness on national security, and by the left-wing for pro-war positions. Her approach to women’s rights and feminism was welcomed by middle-class women and moderate liberals, but opposed by leftists and working-class women who believing that her ideas only benefitted wealthier women.
The year was 1964, 45 years after the women’s suffrage, and the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned sex discrimination. The woman, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith, was a liberal Republican who supported Medicare, civil rights, NASA, and expanding women’s rights to the military. Simultaneously, Margaret Chase Smith supported using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union and the Equal Rights Amendment, at the time a conservative idea, supported by middle-class women and opposed by working-class women.
At the time, she was considered more conservative than various liberals yet unpalatable to conservative Republicans. In an era of liberal dominance, she was a moderate.
In total, she received a mere 3.84% of the vote and said, “I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish. When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.” While her track record was highly regarded, her sex was a disqualifying factor in the eyes of many; for example, journalist Richard Wilson wrote that, at her age of 66, “the female of the species undergoes physical changes and emotional distress of varying severity and duration.”
Other prominent female politicians would face the same issues as Margaret Chase Smith. In 1972, African-American Democrat Shirley Crisholm stated that both racist and sexist discrimination perpetrated her Presidential candidacy, but that sexist discrimination was more. “I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black in the field of politics.” In total, Crisholm received 2.69% of the vote. Later, after being nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for Vice President in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro faced the same discrimination, particularly in relation to her husband’s finances and “was subjected to an unusual degree of scrutiny.”
Significant societal progress in gender relations has been made since the days of Chase Smith, Chisholm, and Ferraro. During the 2008 presidential election, Ferraro stated in an interview that certain aspects of discrimination she faced were ones she didn’t suspect would occur today.
One poll conducted by Pew Research Center found that 19% of the subjects polled would be more likely to support a female candidate over a male candidate running for the Presidency. Astoundingly, this is compared to the 9% more likely to support a male candidate. An overwhelming 71% said gender wouldn’t matter. However, significant institutional barriers remain for female politicians, especially shown through another study concluding that sexism strongly predicted voting in the post-primary 2016 presidential election. Since 1964, only 3.57% of the major party’s presidential nominees have been women; indeed, that 3.57% is only one candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Nevertheless, female presidential candidates have pressed on amidst such factors, aware of the positive effects of running for office. Just as Margaret Chase Smith chose to press on despite believing she would lose the 1964 presidential election, so too did Geraldine Ferraro, whose candidacy inspired many female politicians and women to return to school.
In the words of Ferraro, “every time a woman runs, women win.”